Zen Garden Escape

One public school ritual I have come to loathe is the last-minute-of-summer posting of class rosters. And this year I had a particular chip on my shoulder, knowing my son’s marvelous learning capabilities under my private guidance, and having hung out with a crowd actively opposed to government-controlled schooling. The last minute posting is just another case of the public schools sticking it to the parents, cuz they can. Is your child stuck with the nightmare teacher with bad manners and impaired thinking skills? Is he in the class with the school’s worst sociopath? Don’t like it–you can stuff it, says the school, as the list is posted at the last possible moment and the secretary runs away as quickly as she can after the posting.

Last year, I rebelled by staying at the beach all day on that day. This year, his class assignment would also decide whether we were going to keep him in public school, since we had only one teacher we thought would be acceptable. To get my mind of the matter, I decided to get even further away by taking the children to Green Gulch Farms, a Zen Buddhist retreat and organic farm near the beaches of Marin County.

I always seem to get lost on my journey to any Buddhist destination: it’s karma or sansho shima, I’m not sure exactly which one. I ended up going over Mount Tam instead and ended up at Stinson Beach. Since we’d been driving a long time, we took a break to enjoy the ocean view and eat our lunch. Peter complains about how cold our Santa Cruz beaches are, but Stinson Beach was notably colder. It was overcast and when Kelly and I went in the surf, it was quite icy. But the beach still had a lot of people surfing and splashing and making sandcastles, all enjoying their last day of summer vacation like us. While Kelly and I were in the surf, seagulls started circling our lunch and a man who noticed the feathered thieves literally saved our lunch by telling Neil to close the lunchbox. I asked the man (who was watching out for his surfing sons) about Green Gulch Farms and he gave me directions–as well as advice to stop in at the marvelous Pelican Inn on our way there. But the roads through hilly Marin were very curvy, and I was worried about my ability to take them with a pint of beer in my system, so I didn’t stop in.

At last, we found Green Gulch Farms. It is very much a gulch as we drove down a narrow road to the bottom of a hill. The whole place was so quiet it was eerie. It was as green and forested as my hiking destinations, but far quieter. As we walked towards the few buildings that were there, we saw no one. I think the Zen Buddhists were all meditating in their zendo–and we had come along to disturb the silence.

My pictures don’t do it justice, but with the overwhelming silence, the misty overcast sky, and the towering mountains on either side of the gardens, the place really had a magical, mystical feel. We saw some beach toys neatly stacked by the gate to the gardens, but didn’t touch them. The squeaky gate opened to a garden like this:


which also, surprisingly, happened to include a little playground. Neil and Kelly delighted in swinging on the swings, climbing into the playhouse, and hiding in the tire. Even a tree nearby seemed to have been grown exclusively as a place for children to climb:


While we were there, the only living creature that approached us was a small orange-and-white cat that observed us, like some sort of a guardian. Neil, who’s normally allergic to cats, tried to play with her: she let him pat her, but that’s as much as she would do. Later, though, she scared Kelly, and we continued on our way through the farm.

Buddha statues were set in several quiet places throughout the grounds. Here are just a few of them:


Buddha of the playground


Buddha of the bamboo stand


Buddha of the aspiring seedlings

There was a path leading through the farm, which was, really, just a farm. We walked through the small orchard, past the rows of leafy vegetables, and past the shed (which also had a Buddha in it):


When we reached a pasture with horses, we turned around, because I wasn’t sure whether it was still part of the gardens. When we reached the main buildings again, the office was open. A soft-spoken man inside told us that if we’d gone past the horses, we would have discovered the beach. But next to the office was a real Zen garden (with rocks and a tea room) so we explored that instead.

It was mid-afternoon by now, and while we were in Marin, Neil was interested in visiting the Children’s Bay Discovery Museum again. I figured we could easily spend the rest of the afternoon there. But when we got in to Sausalito, we found out the museum is closed on Mondays. So, with great reluctance, we headed back to San Jose. I arrived at Neil’s school at the exact moment the class lists were being posted.

I was almost eager to find out what “screw you and take it” situation the school had planned for Neil: I could then gleefully go on to homeschool with a penultimate story like “and then, they wanted to put him in a 4/5 combo class again!” It turns out they gave us all that we wanted and then some. He was assigned to the one fifth grade teacher who’d told me she was willing to challenge Neil, and who held the promise of lots of interesting science experiments in class. Neil and I carefully examined the full roster, and didn’t find any known goof-offs or jerks. It couldn’t have been better, but in a way we were a little disappointed not to have an excuse to abandon the public school system, screaming.

And so, Neil’s back in public school. But we’re having a conference with his teacher this afternoon to make absolutely sure we won’t have another wasted year like his fourth grade.

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